Notes by TŌN tuba player Jarrod Briley
Death Served as Inspiration
In 1888, after finishing his first symphony, Gustav Mahler completed a single-movement symphonic poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). In 1893 after a five-year hiatus, Mahler completed the second and third movements, but became stuck on the finale. He knew he wanted to add a choir but struggled to find an appropriate text, noting it had to be just right to avoid being seen as an imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer turned to his colleague Hans von Bülow, an esteemed German conductor and admirer of Mahler’s, for advice on the work. In 1894, at Bülow’s funeral, Mahler heard a setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). Instantly, the composer knew he had found his finale. He wrote of the experience, saying: “Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale.—It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for—“conceiving by the Holy Ghost!
Most of Mahler’s music is inspired by and based upon traditional folk music: his most notable work besides his symphonies are his settings of German folk poems from a collection titled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler set twelve of the songs for voice and piano, and regularly used these in his orchestral music. The third movement of his Second Symphony was originally a voice and piano duo based on the Wunderhorn song “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” The fourth movement is another from the Wunderhorn set, the famous “Urlicht” (Primal Light) movement. His use of the mezzo-soprano soloist in this movement harkens to his lieder, and also serves as foreshadowing to the choral component of the final movement.
The Program Dilemma
Mahler’s opinion on program music changed drastically over his lifetime. In his early years, the composer wrote and even published programs to his symphonies, yet by the time he was composing his Fifth Symphony Mahler had abandoned all programming and descriptive titling and had retracted his early programs. The Second Symphony, however, remains a programmatic piece both in inspiration and nature. Mahler was notably fascinated with existentialism and metaphysical aspects of life, and his original programming displays that in this symphony. The first movement asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; subsequent movements question the meaning of life, the importance of its experiences, and the finale gives the listener hope of happiness and transcendent renewal.